October 04, 2015

India’s Higher Education: Threat of Commercialisation

Tapati Mukhopadhyay

THERE are clear signals that India’s higher and technical education is being thrown open to ‘for profit’ private entities. The threat of global competition via the WTO route is already here, and it is likely to aggravate in future.

Under WTO, educational services, particularly the tertiary educational services like higher education, are treated as globally tradable services. Thus, if our government fully adheres to the WTO mandate under GATS, the education sector in general, and higher and technical education in particular, would be considered to be a tradable sector only, and not a ‘public good’ sector. Thus, public funding would dry out for this important sector.

Because of the commitment and obligations under IMF conditionalities, India has undertaken market-friendly economic reforms since 1991-92. The government has reduced, and in some cases withdrawn, subsidy for higher education and allowed the private finance to flow into the higher education system. Thus, gradually a dual system of higher education emerged, one is public funded, and the other private funded. Especially in the sphere of technical education, the government allowed 100 per cent domestic private investment. It seems that the government is now considering inviting foreign investment in higher and technical education in a bigger way. The role of UGC as a recommendatory body and AICTE is being gradually diluted.

In June 2003, the Cabinet Committee of WTO, Government of India, has put in place a road map for services sector opening. Eleven sub-sectors were offered for opining: Business Services, Engineering, Research and Development, Technical Testing and Analysis Services, Construction and Engineering, Computer and Related Service, Architectural Service, Telecom, Health Services, Accounting Services, Tourism and Maritime Services.

In 2005, the government realised the potentiality of these services and eventually submitted an ‘offer’ list for market access in the sub-sector of higher education to WTO. As already mentioned, under the mechanism of WTO, opening up of the service sector is governed by GATS. Opening up of educational services by a country is done through an ‘offer’ and a ‘request’ list. A country will ‘offer’ its selected list of services at a particular point of time to be opened to a select group of countries. At the same time, while giving the ‘offer’ list to selected countries, those countries would be ‘requested’ to give opportunities to the ‘offering’ country for opening and managing educational services.

The 10th Ministerial Meeting of WTO is scheduled to be held in Nairobi, Kenya, from December 15 to 18, 2015. Under WTO, trade in services sector is governed by the General Agreement of Trade and Services (GATS) having 12 major sectors of services including educational services. Educational services are divided into five sub-sectors, namely Primary Educational Services, Secondary Educational Services, Higher Educational Services, Adult Educational Services, and Other Educational Services. The last three items are known as tertiary educational services.

Except primary and secondary, all other educational services are tertiary education. The higher education sub-sector, which also includes technical education, is an area of concern for India with respect to the opening of services trade under the WTO negotiations. India is already a signatory of GATS. At the Nairobi meet, further liberalisation of GATS is not ruled out.

This would inevitably imply that meritorious but less well-off students would be denied access to higher education. If it is treated as a public good, then it will be funded by the government, and access will be available to the qualifying poor students. The access, equity and excellence were the mission of higher education in India.

Many commissions were established by the government, for preparing regulations for the withdrawal of subsidy in higher and technical education. New set of regulations have been recommended by Birla/Ambani Committee and Knowledge Commission in this context. But none of these reports could be placed before Parliament for open discussion. Things were getting delayed, and finally in the 12th Plan document, the Prime Minister emphatically took position that higher education should be opened and globally competitive. Reform has to take place. The government has pushed a new set of regulation under the Rashtriya Ucchatar Shiksha Abhiyan to bring reform in academic affair, administration, and in examination. All these actions of the central government and some of the state governments showed their preparedness for the opening of higher education after Doha Conference in 2001.

However, the opening of educational services by any country like India should depend on the National Education Policy of the country. Appropriate legislations and regulations are required to be prepared and introduced for paving the way for entering into the new system. The government is going slowly but steadily in this direction.

Consequences of Liberalisation

(1) Higher education in India developed and expanded under the auspicious of the Indian Constitution with two important concepts, secularism and democracy. Higher education is a ‘public good’ funded by the government. By converting the ‘public good’ into a ‘tradable’ service, the basic conceptual structure would be changed to profit making endeavor.

(2) The expansion of higher education in India in the post-Independence period had shown that the enrolment ratio in higher education spectacularly increased from 0.2 million in 1951 to 15.8 million in 2011-12 and it has further increased in 2015. The enrolment ratio is quite high in the deprived areas like North Eastern Hilly Region -- Manipur, Nagaland, Meghalaya, which means that there is spread of higher education from important nodal points to remote areas. It is not only enrolment even higher educational institutions reached every niches of the country. At present, total number of universities is 532 and number of colleges 33,032.

This happened because of the welfare policy of the government. It is not only the geographical area, there are many deprived communities within the society like SC, ST, OBC, etc, who also got the benefit of this public funded higher education policy. General enrolment in higher education from these communities reached 17 per cent. However, there was 30 per cent enrollment in urban area, while just eight per cent is in the rural area. This eight per cent students got the opportunity because of government subsidy was available. Disparities still exists, but the withdrawal of the subsidy from higher education and making it as a ‘tradable’ service will undoubtedly widen rural-urban divide, and the gap between forward and backward classes will also increase many fold. Dichotomy in every sphere will continue and intensify.

(3) At present, self-financing higher educational institutions on many occasions suffer from lack of governances, especially service conditions of the teaching and non-teaching staff, tuition fees for the students, etc. But aided institutions have stipulated norms and governance implemented by the University Acts and the Central rules. These acts and regulations also govern even student fees and other facilities.

Over a period of time, common syllabi were introduced for the under-graduated studies. Thus, a uniform standard has been maintained throughout the country. But once the higher education enters into the arena of WTO, governance will not remain in the hand of the government or institutions like university. The market mechanism will govern the rules of the game, not government rules and regulations. Under such conditions, democratic functioning of higher education, autonomous character universities will fade away. Already in many states like Maharashtra government is skeptically trying to withdraw the democratic structure. Every State has state funded universities where large number of students gets the opportunity of learning at higher level.

(i)                  (4) Finally, academic content and management of institutions will be totally in the hand of business communities where profit is the only motive. With the profit motive in place in many cases, corrupt practices will supersede the basic principle and philosophy of management of higher education. Private educational managers are known as educational shark. The students, teachers, and the other employees face tremendous exploitation under the new system.  


Under the circumstances, there is a need for organising against commercialisation, centralisation and privatisation of higher education. (END)